I was saddened to hear of the recent death of Denis Norden. He will probably be remembered most for It’ll Be Alright on the Night, the blooper show, but he wrote far more than that and, in my view, was a wonderful wordsmith. I also loved his ironic manner. (”Dry wit” doesn’t begin to cover it!).
Along with the late Frank Muir, Denis Norden created a wonderful body of comedy work, as well as discovering and encouraging Galton and Simpson. The latter gave us such gems as Hancock’s Half Hour and Steptoe and Son.
Muir and Norden introduced the whole idea of radio comedy as we know it now thanks to their fabulous Take It From Here. This is often repeated on Radio 4 Extra and it is well worth a listen. The humour has travelled well over time and is still funny. They were the first to come up with a mini series within a show with their The Glums showing a comedic look at family life and being a regular feature on Take It From Here.
There was a poll asking for favourite comic lines and the top one was from the Carry On film Carry on Cleo. Kenneth Williams memorably delivered the line “Infamy, Infamy, they’ve all got it in for me!” Did you know this line was borrowed with permission for the film and that it was written by Muir and Norden for Take It From Here?
The pair also appeared on My Word and one of my favourite books at home is a collection of their pieces for this show – My Word The Ultimate Collection. Both of them were masters at the tall tale and the pun. Well worth getting a copy and just see what they could do playing with the English language. Great fun to read. Beware though – it’s an addictive read.
The pair take well known sayings (quotes from films, Shakespeare, proverbs etc) and spin a wild yarn to get to that particular saying. For example, for a story where they had to get to “too many cooks spoil the broth”, their tall tale ended with the punchline, “Too Many Kirks Spoil Arbroath”! The puns they come up to get there are incredible. And this was years before the also much missed Ronnie Corbett told his tall tales from his chair as a regular part of The Two Ronnies.
Given Norden, along with Eric Sykes, was involved in the relief of Belsen concentration camp, it was remarkable he developed such a wonderful irony and humour. Maybe it was a case of humour helping to escape the horrific, at least in terms of mentally escaping it. And leaving the world with a legacy of things that make people laugh is a truly great thing to do.
Playing with words is a fine and ancient comedy and literary tradition. When I went to see the National Theatre Live production of Hamlet at Thornden Hall, I gasped at Shakespeare’s “sound” pun on the first part of “country” and a very rude word for a certain part of the female anatomy. How that passed the Lord Chamberlain’s department when they censored for swearing, blasphemy etc, I don’t know. This leads to the interesting thought of can you get away with anything as long as it’s classical? Answers in the comments box please!
I love a good pun. I’m also fond of rotten ones that make me groan. Punchlines often depend on puns for them to work and twist endings to stories can do as well. So I will always admire those who use the English language in this way and Muir and Norden were both brilliant at this. I think it is true you do need to know the rules before you can break them. (Les Dawson’s infamous piano playing also springs to mind here).
I also think of limericks as poetry’s way of having fun with the language. Flash fiction can be dependent on the “punchy ending”, which is where puns can come in again.
What I do know is that it is an absolute pleasure to read or listen to work produced by people so skilled with making the language dance to their tune. Is this something that just happens with English do you think? I would like to think not. I do suspect though we will not see the likes of someone like Norden again. (The closest I think in terms of radio comedy is probably John Finnemore. My other nominee here is the fabulous Milton Jones, whose various series for Radio 4 contain puns galore but both these gentlemen have still to put in decades of service here before they can really be compared with Muir and Norden).
The Wikipedia article on the history of the pun is interesting, though I refuse to believe anyone has ever used the “proper” name for pun – “paronomasia”. Hardly rolls off the tongue, does it? And where would the good old Christmas cracker be without the dreadful joke which usually revolves around a pun?
I don’t know what is harder to write – comedy or tragedy. Both have their challenges. But to keep writing funny shows for such a long period shows (a) commitment to the art and (b) a real skill in writing and comic timing that has to translate well over the page and through whatever medium the work has been devised for. I can understand why the late Bob Monkhouse kept volumes of gags he had collected and devised over years. You would want to make sure you didn’t forget any of them. Comedy shows are hungry for new material, always. It is also true to an extent puns can be recycled so worth keeping hold of them for that reason too.
Muir and Norden should not be forgotten for one chief reason. The wonderful comics we laugh at sometimes write their own material but sometimes they do not and are very reliant on their scriptwriters. Muir and Norden led the “charge” for radio comedy after the war years when the country (a) needed cheering up and (b) it was a very different place and becoming more so than those before the war had experienced.
So to the wordsmiths, past and present, who play with the language and have fun with it, I salute you all.
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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